Sometimes the obstacle to a church’s growth is lodged between the ears of the person many call Pastor.

Plateaued churches are often stuck due to three factors in a pastor’s thinking: neurological, sociological and psychological.

Neurological barrier: Dunbar’s Number

“If we start a second service, we won’t be able to know everybody!”

Pastors bump up against this and similar excuses when the church encounters the 200-barrier. The argument is powerful on two levels. First, it voices an important “family sized” church value. Personal warmth and familiarity satisfy deep needs. Second, it expresses a truth about human neurology: we can’t know more than about 150 people.

Design specifications for the gelatinous mass in our skulls imposes this limit on the size of our social networks. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered the link between the size of the brain and the size of social networks.

He theorizes the part of the brain involved in perception, conscious thought, and language impose this limit.

The net result is that an odd neurological twist trap(s) the pastor and congregants. It’s not that they don’t want the church to grow. They simply do not have the neurological bandwidth to welcome more people into the church family.

The downside is apparent to guests looking for a church home. Most church members have already filled their networks to neurological capacity. There’s often no room to bring new people into their personal networks. The “ties that bind” are also “the barriers that exclude.”

Sociological barrier: over-functioning pastors

Family Systems theory provides remarkable insight into church behaviors because churches are emotional systems very much like families (Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, and Friedman, Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve). In anxious systems, it is common to see one person fix the passivity and low function of others.

Many pastors rush in to compensate for a church member’s failure to fulfill their tasks. The pastor accepts responsibility (and the resulting anxiety) when someone else falls down on the job. They “take over responsibilities that belong to their parishioners and then hold themselves responsibly accountable for their management” (Howe, “Self-differentiation in Christian perspective” Pastoral Psychology46, 357).

The church’s emotional system enmeshes the over-functioning pastor in the lives of under-functioning members. These pastors “work in the ministry” rather than “working on it.”

They become managers rather than leaders. This deprives them of the perspective and personal resources needed to address the system dynamics that keep the church on a plateau. Church members become accustomed to having ministry performed for their benefit rather than engaging in a ministry that advances the mission.

Psychological barrier: social service interest

The sociological barrier overlaps with the third, which is anchored in the pastor’s personality. We have found a statistically significant difference in the way that church revitalization pastors provide care when compared to their ministry colleagues.

All pastors have a significantly higher interest in providing care than the general population. But pastors whose churches stay on plateau have a significantly higher interest in extending pastoral care than pastors whose churches breakthrough growth barriers (Brown, Penfold, Westra, Pastor Unique, 96–98).

They have a very strong desire to meet the emotional needs of others. They thrive on close contact with people, to teach, counsel, and comfort. They love the caring side of pastoral ministry.

If you combine this with the expectations of the smaller church, it provides a strong impetus for the pastor to do all the ministry rather than equipping and empowering others to minister.

This doesn’t mean that church revitalization pastors are uncaring. It simply means that they express pastoral care differently. Rather than providing the care directly, they ensure that pastoral care is provided. They understand that if they do all the caring themselves, they will be out of harmony with Ephesians 4:11.


If causes of church growth barriers lie within the pastor, what are some possible solutions?

Circumvent Dunbar’s Number

Teach church members the neurological limits of their ability to enfold new people in their personal networks. Ask them to create space for new people by setting aside a few current relationships. Frame this as a personal sacrifice intended to bless others new to the congregation. Recruit your more gregarious members. Commission them to the ministry of incorporating new people into their personal networks and thus into the church family.

Stop compensating

Take some time to evaluate where you’re spending your time. Look for items on your task list that are rightfully the responsibility of others. Develop a plan to return those responsibilities to their rightful owners and prepare your principled response to the inevitable pushback. If they refuse to fulfill their duties, determine how you’ll deal with the fallout when those things go undone. How will you respond when no one mows the lawn, when no one collates and prints the bulletin, or when the newsletter is dropped?

Train others to provide care

Deal with your inner compulsion to provide all pastoral care. Examine the reasons why you find it rewarding. What do you get out of it? Then train others to be providers so that they can share the joy of being instruments of God’s love and grace in the lives of those who need it. Delegate, delegate, delegate!


Dunbar’s Number is not universally acknowledged. Jan de Ruiter Gavin Weston Stephen M. Lyon, “Dunbar’s Number: Group Size and Brain Physiology in Humans Reexamined”